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$17 AN HOUR : The Future

Average-Wage Earners Fall Behind

New Job Market Makes More Demands but Fewer Promises

By Jonathan Krim and Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 31, 2004; Page A01

ST. CHARLES, Mo. -- Teresa Geerling is living the future of life in the middle of the American workforce.

After years cleaning the insides of airplanes and polishing their outsides, Geerling was laid off from American Airlines last year. The job was physically taxing for Geerling, 50, but the nearly $32,000 annual pay and health-care coverage helped provide a typical middle-class life in this small midwestern community.

Bernie and Teresa Geerling of St. Charles, Mo., are feeling the pinch of today's changing job market. (Mary Butkus For The Washington Post)

_____Post Series - $17 An Hour_____
A Tenuous Hold on the Middle Class (The Washington Post, Dec 18, 2004)
A Rough Ride for Schwinn Bicycle (The Washington Post, Dec 3, 2004)
Many Forced to Wander for Work
Permanent Job Proves Elusive
Income Gap Spreads Uncertainty


About This Series

This is the sixth and last in a series of occasional articles about changes in the middle of the U.S. workforce -- the disappearance of many jobs that pay near the national average of $17 an hour, with such benefits as health care and pensions. Previous articles addressed topics such as the growth in itinerant workers, the tough decisions faced by businesses trying to preserve jobs and the effects on black workers. To read the other stories, go to www.washingtonpost.com/business

Now, she works the overnight shift at a local hospital as a nurse's aide while completing course work to be certified as a medical assistant. That would seem to be a smart move, because unlike airlines, which are contracting, health care is one of the industries that many economists believe could generate millions more jobs in the decades to come.

Yet rarely has Geerling's work life been so precarious.

If she can't stay on her husband's health plan, her costs for health insurance offered by the hospital will be $200 a month, more than five times as much as at the airline. There are no pension benefits beyond the option for a 401(k) savings plan and few job protections. She makes $2 an hour less than before; to have a chance at higher pay, she will need to continually train herself in new areas.

Geerling is at the leading edge of changes that herald a new era for millions of people earning around the national average, $17 an hour.

This new era requires that workers shoulder more responsibility and risk on the way to financial security, economists say. It also demands that they be nimble in an increasingly fluid job market. Those who don't obtain some combination of specialized skills, higher education and professional status that can be constantly adapted will be in danger of sliding down the economic ladder to low-paying service jobs, usually without benefits.

Meanwhile, those who secure the middle-class jobs of the 21st century will have to make $17 an hour stretch further than ever as they pay more for health care or risk doing without insurance and assume much or all of the burden for their retirement.

In the lively debate about the future of U.S. jobs, many economists and scholars acknowledge that the changes wrought by technology and global economic forces will be painful at first. But they say the new structure ultimately will create many kinds of jobs as yet unimagined, in fields such as education, health care and science.

"You have to take the leap of faith that the economy will evolve and there will be this innovation economy that comes," said John C. McCarthy, a Forrester Research analyst who wrote a report on U.S. jobs going overseas.

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